Compassion: Assuming the Best in Others

'I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.' ~ Lao TzuClick To Tweet

My guess is that you’re a pretty talented person. You have skills. You figure things out. You work hard to do the best job you can. And if you’re anything like me, you can’t help but notice that there are people around you who aren’t pulling their weight. They might be slacking off, ‘phoning it in’… or they might seem genuinely incompetent. No matter how many times you offer them some advice, show them how to do it, or even pitch in and give them a hand, it just doesn’t seem to sink in.

Why is it that you show up, work your backside off, and strive every day to do the very best job you can, yet there are others around that seem to go out of their way to make things more difficult and muck it all up?

This can be a very tempting mental trap to fall into, after all, you know how hard you are trying.

But here’s one thing I know to be true: Nobody comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. Everyone is trying to do the best they can with the tools – knowledge, wisdom and systems – at their disposal.

So why does it seem like we’re so much better than everyone else? How can we learn to cope with other people’s apparent incompetence and how can compassion help us become more patient and tolerant?

Why am I so much better?

There are a couple of things going on that make it seem like we are much better than others. The key word here being seem.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to the phenomenon that most of us rate ourselves more competent than is mathematically possible. For example, 88% of drivers believe that they are better than average at driving.

Interestingly, the less competent you actually (objectively) are at something, the more likely you are to overestimate your ability.

Here’s a great video explaining this:

Another useful resource on this topic is Insight by Tasha Eurich.

So, conclusion is… you might not be as great as you think… I’ll let you figure that out.

The False Consensus Effect

Now this one is pretty interesting too. We tend to overestimate the extent to which other people believe/know the same things we do. This is evidenced by experiments that ask people to make subjective observations from a scenario, and then to state what percentage of people would come to the same conclusions. Participants overwhelming believe that most people would agree with them (even when the actual experiment shows otherwise).

There are a couple of possible explanations for this.

First, we do tend to spend time with people we know quite well and who actually do think a lot like us – like family members, and close friends. So in our immediate circle of influence, this is probably true.

Second, we are very familiar with our own values, thoughts and biases – after all, we think about them inside our own heads! And because we think about them more often than the alternatives, we assume they are more common, and we spot the evidence of information that confirms our beliefs (this is known as Confirmation Bias) all over the place.

Coping with incompetence

Sometimes, in spite of all the ways that our brains try to trick us that we’re awesome and others aren’t, we might be genuinely better at something than those around us.

Yes – that can be frustrating!

What can you do about that? Nobody wants to be frustrated at work!

Start with compassion


I’ve never met anyone – even in some of the most challenging circumstances – who was trying to be bad at their job. Whether it was serving customers, engaging with stakeholders, selling services, or writing complex documents, everyone wants to do well, and be seen as competent.

So start with compassion. Say to yourself: “this person is trying really hard to do their best, even if it doesn’t seem like it”. Say it five times if you have to!

Then ask yourself some useful questions to figure out what might be needed to help move forward.

  • Does he know/understand what the task is?
  • Does he understand the standard expected?
  • Has he received adequate training?
  • Do I understand the task he’s been asked to do? (Sometimes another agenda is at play that you aren’t aware of)
  • Does he have the practical tools required to do a great job?
  • Could there be something going on in his life right now that is distracting him, or making it hard for him to deliver the expected standard of work?
  • What can I do to help him succeed?

And perhaps most importantly…

  • Am I actually as great at this as I think I am?

Once you’ve spent some time contemplating the answers to these questions, I promise you, you’ll feel less frustrated, and have a clearer idea of how helping this person might actually be you doing a better job… at least a better job than you thought you were doing…

After all, as Robin Sharma said:

'The best leaders lift people up versus tear people down.'Click To Tweet

So what are you waiting for?

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